That wonderful phrase, "ambiguous loss" is, alas, not my own. Those are the words of Pauline Boss and the title of her 2000 study published by Harvard University Press. Ambiguous losses include the inability to get pregnant, the end of a relationship, the disappearance of a family member, or the disappearance of a family member's memory. Alzheimer's triggers all kinds of ambiguous loss because the person you love is physically present; death hasn't occurred, so you can't properly begin to mourn. The end of relationship, particularly when a partner is still alive and still remains part of your daily life (think of shared custody of children) makes it very difficult to 'get on with life.' As with infertility, you are grieving a future you had begun to imagine but had not yet fleshed out. How do you get 'closure' on something you'd just begun to imagine? Actually, Boss hates the word 'closure,' saying it's good for deals on a car or a house, but not in the realm of human emotions.
Let me leap from Boss's sublime concept to the dailiness of my life. Once it was clear that the pandemic was real, wasn't going to disappear in a matter of weeks, I bought an exercise bike. On our nightly pandemic walks in April, I realized how quickly the muscles of a seventy-year-old get lazy. At the same time, if the virus was spread by droplets expelled by someone with COVID-19, I wasn't going to be going to a gym, where people are breathing heavily, anytime soon. To get through the workouts without a TV, I started listening to Krista Tippett's On Being podcasts, where she interviews poets, historians, psychologists, monks (Buddhist and Catholic), poets who are avid about creating orchards in public spaces where the fruit is available to anyone who wants to eat, and sound ecologists. This last week, she broadcast an earlier interview with Pauline Boss, introduced by a brief "Living the Questions" conversation with Boss about ambiguous loss and the present moment.
Boss is unambiguous about how Americans (and to some extent Canadians) have pathologized grief, to the point where the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders considers grief lasting longer than a couple of weeks to be an example of mental illness, worthy of a visit to a psychiatrist and medication. I've mourned my cats longer than a couple of weeks--what must that say about me? If you love, you grieve. It comes in waves, as almost any griever will tell you. And if that mourner is seventy--? The losses mount up and only those people with chitinous shells are free of grief. She also suggests that we're into "mastery," rather than acceptance. We want to solve or close off the grief, which is more difficult with ambiguous loss. There, acceptance is not a matter of saying "well, I've got a fix on that now. I know how to understand my loss and how to give it meaning. Done," uttered with a ritual washing of hands. In cases of ambiguous loss, you have to accept duality. "Well, maybe next time my father will recognize me. And maybe not." This is the most honest response, Boss has learned from people like the families of cleaning staff who worked in the Twin Towers on 9/11 and whose last bedside conversations with parents and children and partners didn't occur and whose bodies were not found.
While I was listening to Boss and Tippett's conversation, I was experiencing just such a duality. The wonderful rain we've had this year has left the ferns and snow on the mountain and the vegetable garden a landscape of rich green that I watch out the window as I pedal, ratchet up the resistance and pedal harder. The bird feeders--our Meow TV--are just outside the windows and the sparrows are their usual ebullient selves. While I work out, Lyra and Tuck sit on the window sills and swish their rails while making smacking, snacking noises. All seems right with nature. But at my back, College Avenue is very quiet, particularly in later afternoon, one of the rare times it's truly busy. People are not coming home from the office or the shop or the factory. The world is the same. The world is utterly different and there is no way to tell how things are going to sort themselves out. I read that a record number of restaurants will not survive the pandemic--along with jobs for waiters and cooks and the farmers who grow the food and the truck drivers who deliver it. I learn that jobs are going to change in wonderful ways and that there will be fewer entry level jobs cleaning hotels and more sophisticated jobs working with robots. Who knows?
Boss and Tippett just touched on our experience of ambiguous loss right now, but let me see if I can't flesh out their thoughts. Boss acknowledged that we've all lost a lot of freedom, that each time we go out into the world we consider whether this trip is really necessary. No doubt many of your are both elated that your children are going to school in the fall as well as terrified. We are terribly isolated, but that condition is addressed by the very thing we can't have: human connection. Like the person ending a relationship, we grieve a future we can no longer anticipate. Will our world become more caring, less racist, more creative, more environmentally aware, more sustainable? Or will we be so hungry for a bit of retail therapy that we snarl at someone who wants to try on the same shirt that we do? Will we go back to traffic jams and our casual racism that simply doesn't acknowledge the presence of people of colour? Do you know what I miss? A coffee shop in the morning full of animated conversation. When will we be sociable again? When will we have lunch with that one person we meet twice a year for passionate conversation and long meaningful hugs? When will we begin to hug again, instead of trying to get our eyes to say everything over our masks--from 'you look lovely today' to 'no problem' to the person who nearly ran into us?
Boss and Tippett did talk briefly about what we can do. Stay in touch. Phone calls or Skype calls are lifesavers to many people. Keep rituals alive because rituals give meaning to our experience. Go to the online funerals or church services. I would add that you need to take care of yourself by taking online tours of art galleries or listening to online concerts. Read something outside your wheelhouse or a book you've read half a dozen times. Celebrate the creative online work made by hungry artists. Watch the funny videos of giraffes making Olympic-worthy dives or the San Francisco Orchestra and their children and pets performing the "William Tell Overture." Send the links to other people. Walk or garden: time in nature always leaves our minds and bodies healthier. Find ways to connect and to endure the uncertainty, ways to grieve the past and celebrate an unknown future together.
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